Melanchthon’s change of eucharistic opinions

A few months ago I wrote here about Melanchthon and his remarkable change of opinion with regard to the questions of contingency and determinism. It’s not entirely clear when he changed his mind, but the years 1527-1528 have been suggested. Recently I bought W.H. Neuser’s, Die Abendmahlslehre Melanchthons in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung 1519-1530 (Neukirchen-Vluyn 1968). While reading some parts of it, I was struck by the fact that Neuser describes a parallel change of opinion, in this case with regard to eucharistic theology. In his book Neuser Luther and Melanchthonelaborates on the eucharistic controversy between Luther and his followers on the one hand and Zwingli, Oeculampedius, but also ‘Schwärmer’ like Karlstadt on the other hand. Matters were, of course, far more complex than a division along one line of demarcation. While Luther tended to be blunt in eucharistic matters, Melanchthon striked a more nuanced note. Both men, however, were basically in agreement about Christ’s real presence.

In 1527 Melanchthon carried out, with three others, a visitation in Thüringen. There were considerable worries about this area, because of the obstruction against the Reformation in the monasteries on the one hand and of Karlstadt’s influence on the other hand. Melanchthon himself wrote the instruction for the visitation (July 1527). He locates the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in pane et in calice” (in the bread and in the cup). In the Articuli visitationis, the report Melanchthon made after the visitation, which was cut short on the 13th of August, he writes something different: “cum pane et cum calice” (with the bread and with the cup”). That’s more than a play upon words. It means that Melanchthon changed his mind with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. A couple of questions arise from this observation of Neuser.

(1) What caused this change of mind of Melanchthon? Neuser suggests (p.276) – and I’m inclined to believe him – that the visitation confronted him with a massive heritage of roman catholicism, in particular the magic realism of the old opus operatum theology. In order to combat this, Melanchthon changed his own formulations with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence.

(2) Can we date the change more precisely? Yes, we can, to a certain extent. The terminus a quo must be the date already mentioned, when the visitation was terminated temporarily: August 13. The terminus ante quem is the 26/27th of September. At that time Melanchthon had a consultation with Luther about the visitation. We only know of the conversation between the two men from Melanchthon’s letters, but it is clear that Melanchthon felt uncertain about his eucharistic opinions. Initially, he was relieved about Luther’s reaction, but a month later his tone is bitter. “I don’t want to be involved with this question anymore”, he writes to Joachim Camerarius.

(3) Is there a link between his change of opinion with regard to the mode Christ’s presence in the eucharist and with regard to contingency and free will? That is of course a question that is not easy to answer. Both changes are dated in or close to 1527. That makes it worthwile to give the suggestion a serious look. To establish the connection precise textual research for the date of Melanchthon’s change with regard to contingency needs to be done.  However, if – for the moment – we suppose that there is a connection, it seems plausible that the change of opinion has been initiated by the experiences of the visitation. Is that conceivable? Yes, I think so. It would for example mean that Melanchthon found out that the emphasis on God’s sovereignty made people indifferent. So, yes it is conceivable. But, is it probable? So far, I’m not convinced, although – I have to admit – I’m certainly intrigued by these two changes of opinion.

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Wolterstorff on the Reformation

Recently I bought Wolterstorff”s collection of essays about Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World, titled: Hearing the Call (Mark R. Gornik & Gregory Thompson (eds.); Eerdmans, Grand Rapids – 2011). It really is a good read. Most of the essays have been published in the course of the past 40 years. However, I was attracted by an unpublished essay: ‘The Political Ethic of the Reformers’. In the Acknowledgements it is called ‘an unpublished essay and undated – I would guess in the 1970s’. I don’t know who the ‘I’ is here – Wolterstorff himself (probably) or one of the editors (less likely) – but I would date it in the early 1980’s. The reason is this: two of the books which are mentioned in the text did appear in resp. 1981 (Alysdair McIntyre, After Virtue) and 1982 (Harro Höpfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin).

I wrote before about Wolterstorff distinction between presence and action, with regard to the Lord’s Supper. The essay on Political Ethic of the Reformers made it clear to me that this distinction is part of Wolterstorff’s perception of the history of the Reformation. Let me quote a few key-phrases:

I suggest that in the Reformation we see the beginnings of a fundamental contrast to the medieval understanding of the relation between God and humankind. (…) For the medievals, the salvation for which we long and which is the true end of all humankind is the Vision of god. For the Reformers, the salvation  for which we long and which is the true end of all humankind is our participation in the Kingdom of God. (337)

This has a lot of implications. About one of these Wolterstorff says:

What will also have to be re-thought in this Kingdom of God perspective is the nature and function of revelation. For one thing, revelation will be demoted from the all-embracing, looming importance that it had in the classical Vision of God theologies. There revelation, once creation had occurred, was the principal engagement between God and us. But in the Kingdom of God perspective, God is seen as acting throughout history for the redemption of God’s wayward and suffering human creatures. Redemption is here the central engagement. Revelation, apart from that which occurs in creation, is an accompaniment to redemption, whereby God makes clear to us what God asks of us and what God does for us. And in so far as God’s revelation is the manifestation to us of God’s will for us, hearing God rather than seeing God will seem the appropriate metaphor.

So, it turns out that the distinction between presence and action for Wolterstorff is connected with, or maybe even rooted in, a perspective on the difference between medieval and reformed theology. It´s the difference in emphasis on God´s nature versus his deeds, on revalation versus redemption, the vision of God´s essence versus the hearing of God´s Word. More precisely stated, the distinction between presence and action has everything to do with the very conception of God. According to Wolterstorff for example, thinking of God in terms of timeless eternity can´t do justice to the biblical history of his mighty deeds.

Wolterstorff offers much more in this essay than I mentioned here (a critical discussion with Alisdair McIntyre, good thoughts about how society and politics were organized in the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and so forth). However, these thoughts on the new perspective in Reformation theology are very stimulating on their own.

Wolterstorff on Calvin on the Lord’s Supper

I have a tremendous respect for Nicholas Wolterstorff. Not only for the quantity and the quality of his work, but also for its diversity. He is one of very few philosophers who has been reflecting upon the phenonemon of ‘liturgy’. Besides, he has read a good deal of Calvin. Not only his Institution, but also his commentaries.

He offers some very interesting remarks on Calvin´s liturgy of the Lord´s Supper. According to Wolterstorff, the only way to fully understand his liturgy of the Lord´s Supper is to think of it, not merely in terms of presence, but (also) of action. I´m inclined to agree with him. Calvin does speak of the Lord´s Supper in his sermons in terms of (divine) action. He claims repeatedly for example that the Lord´s Supper is a testimony of the Holy Spirit. He assures and consoles us. However, one of the key terms of Calvin´s thinking about the Lord´s Supper is the word ´substance´. He uses it quite frequently, and (that´s important as well) in key phrases. It´s a difficult word to translate. Calvin obviously doesn´t think of ´substance´ in terms of scholastic definitions. Sometimes it means ´content´ or something like ´the real thing´. One is inclined to translate it in some passages as ´(real) presence´. That’s the point Calvin wants to stress repeatedly: it’s Christ Himself who is present and giving Himself in the Lord’s Supper.

If that, however, is correct, the assertion of Wolterstorff should be reformulated. It´s not a matter of presence or action, but of action through presence. It´s the real presence of Christ, through his Spirit, that consoles and assures us. I don’t think Wolterstorff would disagree with this. He would, I suspect, ask a couple of questions. For example: What kind of presence are we talking about? Is it a kind of ‘deputized action’ (compare Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse, 43vv.)? Or should we think of God ‘appropriating’ our celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Divine Discourse, 51vv.)? I’m not sure Wolterstorff would suggest this line of thought. I’m however quite sure Calvin wouldn’t be satisfied with it. He believed in a stronger notion of presence: both real and spiritual.

Divine Presence in the Lord’s Supper

In the Reformation the Lord’s Supper was one of the most important theological topics. In the controversy with the Roman Catholic Church, the theologians of the Reformation developed alternative views of the Lord’s presence in Holy Communion. Last SupperUnfortunately, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, to mention only the three best known Reformers, didn’t agree which option was best. For the moment, I won’t work out how these differences historically developed or how they may exactly be spelled out. Instead, I’d like to sketch four models of interpreting Christ’s presence in the Holy Meal. These models, I believe, are not mere theoretic options, but – to speak so – ‘live options’. We are talking about the way how pastors and members of the church view, consciously or unconsciously, the Lord’s Supper.

  1. Symbolic presence. With symbolic presence I mean those thoughts and theories that rely on a symbolic theory to explain how the Lord is present in the Eucharist. This seems to me a especially in Roman Catholic circles a viable theory. Under the influence of French philosophers like Ricoeur and others, the old dogma of transsubstantiation has, at least in Europe, been largely displaced by symbol-theories. Note, that according to this line of thought the presence in the Eucharist requires no specific action of God, apart from the original institution of the sacrament. 
  2. Ritual presence. This model is akin to the symbolic presence model. Rituals are commonly understood as symbolic actions, that is: actions with the aid of, or on the basis of, symbols. However, it is very well possible to make a distinction between these two models. In contrast with the first model, theories of ritual presence emphasize ritual action, instead of the symbol itself, as a vehicle of meaning. In the Zwinglian tradition we find examples of this model. Zwingli himself taught his congregation that not bread and wine, but they themselves were the Body of Christ, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
  3. Spiritual presence. The third model I call ‘spiritual’, which might give rise to some misunderstandings. The aforementioned Zwinglian tradition is sometimes called ‘spiritual’, to mark the contrast with ‘real’ presence. However, by ‘spiritual’ I mean those theories, which explain Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in terms of the Spiritus Sanctus, the Holy Spirit. John Calvin is of course the best known representative of this insight. In contrast with Zwingli, Calvin did not care much about the specific forms of the Eucharistic rite. The key in his understanding of the Communion is the so-called ‘Sursum Corda’: “Lift up your hearts…”. In doing that the participants will experience that Christ is present by his Spirit.
  4. Local presence. The difference between Luther and Calvin with regard to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist can be largely traced back to different opinions with regard to the Ascension of Christ. While Luther held that Christ’s body in heaven is omnipresent (thanks to the ‘communicatio idiomatum’), whereas Calvin emphasized the heavenly location of Christ’s body (the so-called ‘extra calvinisticum’). This model tends therefore to be Lutheran in its intention. Crucial in this model is at least an interpretation of Christ’s Eucharistic presence in terms of spatiality and locality.

It’s important to stress that these options are not mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly possible to combine for example aspects of the ritual presence and the spiritual presence model. However, I believe that an approach like this can clarify some of the important differences with regard to the Lord’s Supper.